The Pope’s letter raises issues of continuity and discontinuity in the teaching of Church as regards the Second Vatican Council – a topic that has often been discussed on this blog. He writes:
The Church’s teaching authority cannot be frozen in the year 1962 – this must be quite clear to the Society. But some of those who put themselves forward as great defenders of the Council also need to be reminded that Vatican II embraces the entire doctrinal history of the Church. Anyone who wishes to be obedient to the Council has to accept the faith professed over the centuries, and cannot sever the roots from which the tree draws its life.
A simple word count of this passage will show which tendancy the Holy Father views as more injurious to the Church.
Nevertheless, the question of legitimate and illegitimate change, of continuity and discontinuity, clearly remains at the heart of the question of the interpretation of (or even validity of) Vatican II.
In light of this, I find two recent articles of special interest. The first is by our eminent friend and companion of the port bottle, Cardinal Pole, on his blog: “On traditional socio-political doctrine and Vatican II”. It is fairly long and lengthy, but worth ploughing through to get to the end where he writes:
But as you know, the Conciliar document that really sticks in my craw is the Declaration on Religious Freedom, Dignitatis Humanæ… I could see how Dignitatis Humanæ might, might, be reconciled with Tradition, and would have no problem whatsoever with taking it as a policy document, but I do not see how its teachings could be regarded as constituting a development of the earlier body of doctrine; at best they would be a statement of some abstract, subjective principles. As for the other documents, if unambiguous clarification from the Magisterium is not forthcoming then I find the solution of Pope St. Gregory the Great in the aftermath of Constantinople II, mentioned recently at Athanasius’ blog, rather appealing: St. Gregory “counselled prelates to ignore the 2nd Council of Constantinople for the sake of peace and unity.”
The main point in Cardinal Pole’s assessment of Dignitatis Humanae is the distinction he makes (originally made by Lefebvre himself) between “subjective freedom” and “objective freedom”. He makes the piont that while the declaration is clear about the rights of the subject who worships, it does not make any statement regarding the object towards which one is free to direct one’s worship.
I am not sure that this point can be conceded. The Declaration clearly defends the individual’s right to “his own beliefs”. Would this not imply that the “object” of the individual’s subjective right to religious freedom is the object of the subject’s “own beliefs”? And yet the question of the object of the freedom of religion can be thrown into relief with the following set of questions:
1) Does a Muslim have a right to practice his religion?
2) Does a person who is convinced of Islamic doctrines have a right to act upon this conviction (ie. the right of conversion)?
3) If everyone has a right to be Christain, does everyone have a right to be a Muslim?
4) If everyone has the right to hear the Gospel, does everyone have the right to hear the message of the Prophet?
5) Is there a distinction to be made between divine and human rights in these questions?
But let’s get back to the question of hermeneutics and Vatican II.
Yesterday, I read this entry on the first things blog by Edward Oakes: “Benedict’s Vatican II Hermeneutics” in which he argues that there are regularly four different possible assessments of Vatican II based on a a matrix of whether it is assessed in terms of continuity or rupture, and whether this continuity or rupture is seen to be good or bad. He even names examples of these four hermeneutics:
Continuous, and thus good: Cardinal Dulles.
Continuous, and thus bad: Hans Küng
Discontinuous, and thus good: John O’Malley
Discontinous, and thus bad: Marcel Lefebvre
However, he suggests that the reality is far more subtle and complex than this, and goes on at length to analyse the Holy Father’s address to the Roman Curia in 2005 in which Benedict famously didn’t coin the term “Hermeneutics of Continuity”. The term the Pope really coined was “innovation in continuity”. Oakes says that Benedict was precisely not proposing that Vatican II was completely continuous with the teachings of the past. He says that the pope pointed to a real discontinuity that occurred in the Second Vatican Council, a change that was necessary for the sake of reform:
How best should the Council be understood? For Benedict the key term is reform: “It is precisely in this combination of continuity and discontinuity at different levels that the very nature of true reform consists” [all emphases are added]. In other words, to refuse to admit any disjunction with the Church’s past would not only distort the historical record (which shows clear instances of both continuity and discontinuity in the conciliar documents), but also would inevitably block reform, which requires not a convoluted combination between continuity and discontinuity but rather, in the pope’s own words, “innovation in continuity.”
And then, as an example of this “innovation in continuity”, Oakes pointed to Benedict’s choice of Dignitatis Humanae:
Among these undeniable innovations, Benedict above all stressed Vatican II’s Decree on Religious Liberty (Dignitatis Humanae). Frankly admitting that Vatican II broke with the “fortress mentality” set in motion by Pius IX’s open hostility to the modern world and by his condemnation of religious liberty in his Syllabus of Errors (1864), Benedict explained the reasons for the Council’s departure from that teaching.
Oakes’ analysis of the Pope’s analysis of the complete “volte-face” between the teaching of Pius IX and the teaching of Vatican II on religious liberty and church and state is that the circumstances in which the teaching was made had changed and hence the teaching itself needed to be reformed in order to remain true to the essential principles of the Church’s teaching.
This in fact, has always been the way I have understood the discontinuity inherant in the Second Vatican Council. Only blind Freddy would deny the real discontinuity that exists between the Council’s teaching and some of the explicit teachings of the Magisterium before the Council. The times changed, and so therefore the way that the essential teaching of the Church was expressed and practiced had to change. We call this “reform”. I agree that Vatican II proposed no new doctrines – but it certainly reformulated the doctrines in a totally new way for a new world – just as John XXIII originally requested.
The difficulty in this is always the question of how much change or what change can be made without throwing the baby out with the bath-water. In other words, what is and what is not “authentic” reform. There are many different answers to that question. Five hundred years ago, the Protestants used “Sola Scriptura” to determine the answer. Catholics, on the other hand, rely on the authority of the Church to make this distinction for them. We think with the Church.
I guess that opens us to up to the accusation of being docile sheep in this matter. A good thing we have a Good Shepherd, then.